I’m back from my trip to Yellowstone National Park.
In the end, I drove just over 2000 miles to get there, poke around and drive back all in about five days.
I had a great time.
The goal was to go off and explore someplace that I’ve wanted to visit all on my own, going where I wanted to go, stopping where I wanted to or not stopping at all. I’d have happily gone with Christina, but she didn’t have time off available and she encouraged me, since I’ve been talking about doing this for a couple years, to go have fun. And I did.
The first day was a simple road trip from Vancouver to Missoula, Montana.
I stopped part way there to visit Steptoe Butte State Park, which is about an hour south of Spokane where I grew up. It’s a big, cylindrical butte that sticks up above the Palouse country. Basically the whole countryside got smoothed down around it during the glaciers coming and going (this would have been some time ago…) The view was impressive but it did suffer from being sort of in the middle of nowhere. No exactly a getaway location. But, I’m glad I finally got to see it as it was kind of impressive.
I drove on to Missoula and arrived there to try and find a motel to stay for the night. Apparently, I had the misfortune to arrive on a Friday evening where Freshman orientation, a long range rifle competition, a rodeo and something else were all taking place. Rooms were not plentiful. But, I persevered and found someplace to crash till morning.
The next day I drove on to Gardiner, Montana, which is to the north of Yellowstone National Park.
Now, a few words about Yellowstone which I didn’t know.
Yellowstone was originally created as a National Park by Ulysses S Grant in 1872. As big as it is (~3500 square miles), Lewis and Clark managed to miss it entirely. Native Americans had been there something like 11,000 years before we stumbled across it.
When Teddy Roosevelt visited (he’s got a Lodge named after him in the northeast of the park with a stellar view of the valley and mountains to the east), he decided the park wasn’t big enough. Using the newly passed Antiquities Act of 1906, he made Yellowstone much larger. He also created Crater Lake in Oregon and was a major force for preservation of the national resources by created protected spaces and National Parks.
Back to the trip. Day two had me going to Gardiner then in to the Park.
The Park has a limited set of roads, primarily two lane highways. The major route forms a figure eight or two ovals on top of each other. One could navigate much of the park by entering at the north and driving a figure eight and return back to where you started. The average speed limit is posted at 45, but all the animals, hills, traffic, people and whatnot, often you’re moseying at much less than that. At first this irritated me because I was still in “get there!” mode instead of slowing down to enjoy the scenery.
The first place I stopped was Mammoth Hot Springs in the northwest of the park. Mammoth has an interesting set of terraces and geology that was very interesting to poke around in.
Before moving on, I should give a little context. I’d been to Yellowstone once before when I was about … eight, I guess. Maybe seven. Between second and third grade we drove through on the way back from West Virginia where we lived briefly back to Spokane. I really don’t recall much. The most vivid memory is actually the smell of sulphur. And I recall bears begging on the sides of the road. I’m not entirely sure that’s my memory or just one I saw on television, though. It’s been awhile. This would be my first time going as an adult.
I stopped and wandered around Mammoth Hot Springs and took lots of pictures. Then got back in the car and started wandering south, stopping at every little off road pullout or spring along the way that caught my eye.
By early evening, I was approaching Old Faithful but I had regained the “get there!” attitude from earlier and was more interested in making it to my camp so I blew by it.
I stayed at Grant Village, which sits next to West Thumb on Yellowstone Lake. It was a nice campground but as I got my camp put together it was clear that mosquitoes were going to make the evenings unpleasant. I got attacked through two coatings of various bug repellents. Not fun.
In the evening I went to the Yellowstone Ranger presentation at the campground auditorium, led by Ranger Chuck. Lots of park background, info on the animals, questions about bears. Good stuff.
The most pertinent detail I took away was that hiking away from others on my own would be stupid. The recommended hiking in Yellowstone involves yelling “Hey, bear!” or the equivalent and being in a party of more than one. I don’t yell and I was alone, so it didn’t look good for my hiking options. On top of all of that, on the Thursday before I left I was diagnosed with bronchitis and sent off with antibiotics, steroids and an inhaler. I was wheezing. Turns out much of Yellowstone is at 6000-8000 feet. Hiking at that altitude with a wheeze is not fun! Yeah, that’s my excuse. That and the desire to not get eaten by bears. Which, btw, did happen just a few weeks prior. A guy got eaten by a bear. His wife was smart enough to play dead, but he was killed. They believe he ran from the bear, which is bad. They closed off a significant chunk of the park because the bear is still out there. All these stories served to limit my feelings of adventurousness.
I went back and hunkered down in my tent and sleeping bag and slept really well. Till around 4am when two things became clear: First, it was cold! Apparently nighttime temperatures were around freezing (I’d read around 40 and wasn’t worried). Second, my feet were cold. My feet are never cold. I sleep hot. So, it was cold. Socks did the trick, but it was still a bit nippy. Probably should have brought some long johns just in case, but I was sure I’d be fine.
The next morning I drove from about 7 o’clock on the lower oval up around the outside to the northeast corner of the upper oval, which is where Roosevelt Lodge sits. On the way out of the campground, I saw my first large wildlife as about a dozen elk were wandering down the road, fairly oblivious to all the gawkers in cars and the side of the road.
Roosevelt Lodge was was where Teddy would bring his buddies when they wanted to get away. It has a stellar view of the valley and mountains climbing to the east. But, as a Lodge? Meh. Timberline is a much more impressive Lodge, if you ask me…
On the way there, traffic slowed. There was a buffalo on the side of the road, just standing there munching grass. For all I knew, this might be the only buffalo I would see, so of course I was bound and determined to get a good picture of him. Which I did.
About a mile further down the road, the river came close and I spotted a few more buffalo off in the trees near the river. I pulled over and got out and took some pictures. In one of them, a couple of buffalo were gently head butting each other and generally wrestling with their horns while another, bigger buffalo watched from the shade. They seemed like a couple younger buffalo.
A bit further down the road I stopped at another place called the Mud Cauldron. Off to the east were more buffalo. In fact, as I got out to look at the river below, four buffalo were crossing the Yellowstone River. One of them was a young calf who was not making forward progress across the river. It looked like he was struggling. There were other onlookers and they were starting to get stressed for the calf. After a few minutes, the calf got the bright idea to head for the shore directly rather than the indirect path his elders took. He popped out of the river about a hundred yards back from the other three, bleated as if to say “Hey! Wait for me!” then hustled his butt to catch up and they wander off. Crisis averted.
The Mud Cauldron was impressive on its own but made more so by the presence of another couple dozen buffalo just hanging out around the boardwalks and pools of steaming mud. A couple times a buffalo crossed the boardwalk, much to the consternation of the tourists (me included) who decided that if the buffalo wanted to be on the boardwalk, we probably wanted to be somewhere else.
Ranger Chuck from the night before recommended 100 yards distance from elk and buffalo. These guys were about 10 yards away in many cases and not all that concerned about all the attention.
At one point, a small calf was hanging out on the boardwalk with someone who could have been his mom hanging out very nearby. That calf caused several groups to hear around that area rather than risk getting anywhere near a mom and baby buffalo!
If you don’t know, the Yellowstone Caldera surrounds a good portion of the middle of the Park. It was termed a supervolcano because of the size of the eruptions which were something like 1000x the size of the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption which I recall very well.
The point of this is to say that much of Yellowstone is on or affected by a freaking live volcano! And you really can see that when you stop in random parts of the park and look around and see dozens of plumes of steam/smoke that are coming out of the ground in various places.
You can’t swing a cat without hitting a geyser, super-heated pool, colorful mineral deposits in ponds and/or bubbling pools and ponds of water that’s either amazingly clear, highly acidic or bubbling mud!
The first one I saw I thought it was an amazing thing. By the end of the day it was more like “Oh, look, more evidence that I’m going to stay a couple of nights here, on top of a freaking volcano”. Over the last decade, measurements indicate that underground domes are rising at the rate of a couple inches per year. Eventually these will blow up. Back in 2004, five dead bison were discovered to have died from inhalation of toxic geothermal gasses in the Norris Geyser Basin. Where I hung out. On the freaking volcano!
Anyway. Back on the road after hanging out with the buffalo and the freaking volcano!
The next major stop was Canyon Village, which is located near the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. Which is a thing I didn’t know about before. That would be the result of a lack of interest in geography coupled with a public school education, I suspect.
The canyon is amazing and gorgeous. Lots of stops for pictures and wandering down to the falls at the north end and various other stops along the way.
There used to be an observation platform about midway down the Canyon that stuck out in to the Canyon about 100’ more than the current observation point. That is, until there was an earthquake back in 1975 that tumbled it in to the Canyon below. The current viewpoint has the end surrounded by cyclone fence but you can see where it used to be.
It was here that I observed to myself that you can’t seem to turn around with a camera without being faced with yet another amazing photographic opportunity. Everything was just amazing view and vista followed by more and different vistas and views.
After completing my wander up the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, I continued up to the Roosevelt Lodge and wandered around there, frankly a bit underwhelmed aside from the stellar view. Then, it was back in the car. I wandered back down the right side of the topmost oval and across the middle.
Apparently there was a really impressive forest fire back in 1988 which burned nearly a third of the park. You can still see lots of evidence of that, though it’s interesting to see loads and loads of 20 year old small trees which have self-seeded to fill back in the areas burned by the fire. To this day there’s a good percentage of tree trunks towering over the 20 year old baby trees, making for an odd but pretty striking view.
Ranger Chuck was asked whether they inoculate the buffalo for disease and he said that no, their job was to preserve, not mess with the park and its animals. That means they don’t (I’m pretty sure) fight forest fires, which are a natural thing, of course, or mess with the animals.
The exception to this is that when bears start messing with folks, they take a very quick and active hand in dealing with them. Often this means killing them. So, they are really serious that they don’t want people and bears mixing because when they do and the bears show signs of getting acclimated to people, they kill the bear.
I again wandered down the left side of the lower oval, stopping at places that I’d driven by the day before.
Back when it was discovered in 1870 (discovered by non Native Americans, I should say), it would shoot up in the air 120+ feet.
From Wikipedia: “Eruptions can shoot 3,700 to 8,400 US gallons (14,000 to 32,000 l) of boiling water to a height of 106 to 185 feet (32 to 56 m) lasting from 1.5 to 5 minutes. The average height of an eruption is 145 feet (44 m). The highest recorded eruption was 185 feet (56 m) high. Intervals between eruptions can range from 45 to 125 minutes, averaging 66.5 minutes in 1939, slowly increasing to an average of 90 minutes apart today.”
For years it would go off pretty reliably about every 60 minutes. The duration between eruptions has lengthened to around 90 minutes, but interestingly, they are more predictable.
Old Faithful is also not the tallest or largest geyser in the park. That’d be Steamboat Geyser. I stopped there and while I was there that particular geyser only chugged up 10’ or so in the air, but it was pretty constant.
Anyway, I got there about 45 minutes before the best guess at the next eruption, which would take place within minutes of sundown, if it was on time.
They’ve built a series of benches two deep in a semi-circle around Old Faithful. When I got there there were only a few folks. As the predicted time approached, the benches filled up.
I had a couple pre-teens around me who were clearly bored and not impressed by the whole thing. As the time to eruption approached, the geyser started belching some smoke. The boys were not impressed. Then, about the time it was predicted to start, Old Faithful started belching some water. But, only about 10-15 feet to start with. Again, the pre-teens were not impressed, going so far as to theorize (I’m sure not for the first time), that Old Faithful was really fed by a large hose from the Lodge just to keep people coming and that obviously the hose had broken for this eruption. Then, it went off, starting to belch water and smoke in to the air. I’ve no idea how high, but it certainly seemed like 60’-100’ in the air with the water and the steam. Now the boys were silent, letting out an occasional “Whoa!”
I wandered back to my campground as the sun set, just enjoying the act of moseying through the park and watching the landscape go by.
The next morning was cloudy and, in fact, I got rained on in the early morning. This was not auspicious. After I was up and about (warmer than the night before), I saw it was looking like a pretty cloudy day.
I broke camp and packed up my stuff as the plan had been to move on to a different campground.
But, the change in weather didn’t feel good. Plus, I really had seen much or most of the park.
On a whim (which is kind of the point of this sort of road trip), I decided that I would go explore Grand Teton National Park, which is only 25 miles to the south of the south entrance to Yellowstone, which was very near my campground.
I had a beautiful drive through the park, seeing yet more amazing scenery, though it was interrupted by occasional thunderstorms and lightning and rain.
Reaching the south end of Grand Teton National Park, I paused and though about what I wanted to do. I could camp, but it was wet and that didn’t sound like fun. I could find a motel (the south end of Grand Teton National Park dumps out in Jackson, Wy, where the rich go to ski in the winter). In the end, I decided that I had seen as much as I wanted to see in those two parks and I made the decision to start heading back.
My trip to Yellowstone and Grand Tetons was amazing. It’s hard to imagine that I grew up in the Western United States and really had no experience to speak of with the Parks.
Did you know there is a Grand Canyon of Yellowstone? I did not know that.
Have you ever heard buffalo talking to each other or the sound of a calf calling out to the other buffalo to wait up! Now I have.
Did you know that the Sulphur Cauldron has the pH just one above battery acid? Which sounds terrible until you see it’s one below lemon juice, which doesn’t seem that bad.
I was also reminded that as much as I enjoy some time to myself where I don’t have to meet anyone else’s needs but my own, after just a few days, I miss my wife, Christina, who was incredibly supportive of me just heading out and going exploring. She rocks!
It was a great trip. I’m glad I made the opportunity and did it. I highly recommend it to anyone.[Link to photos here]